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Culture Change e-Letter #4

Where lies failure of the World Summit 
on Sustainable Development

by Jan Lundberg

"Sustainable development" is almost as much of a contradiction in terms as "sustainable growth."  Yet, more growth is exactly what the powerful interests are gunning for at the current United Nations meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa.  The World Summit on Sustainable Development is the ten-year follow-up of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which was about solving the environmental crisis.  You might ask, how can growth be a sacred cow at this point in our overpopulated and polluted state?  

In 1992, my colleagues attended in Rio and we dubbed it Earth Plummet.  As with George Bush the First, no one expects much global responsibility from his son.  The global crisis is not so much one of leadership but of industrial development and growth as a way of running the world.  The preordained failure of the U.N. meeting in Johannesburg is due in part to an environmental movement that is split and compromised.  Many nonprofit groups (NGOs, or non-governmental organizations) in attendance in Johannesburg are weak on some key issues of sustainability and development.

The rationale of sustainable development/growth is that "poverty" must be eliminated before there can be environmental protection.  The best example is a person being unable to buy cooking fuel, so roots are dug up for burning, causing erosion or desertification.  What is not stated is that the poor person digging up roots for fuel had lost his or her land due to interference in traditional rights, and was forced into a cash crop arrangement amidst a gangster-controlled, overpopulated country buying arms from the U.S., most likely.  

Moreover, in the assumptions of the industrial elite running the world and giving out "development" loans, fighting "poverty" means many more polluting consumer products manufactured and shipped (via petroleum) for the Third World.  That would also mean creating more roads, motor vehicles, and electric power, to bridge the "north-south gap."  

Besides adding more greenhouse gases, the problem would remain that there isn't nearly enough petroleum to begin to fuel the southern countries' "development" anything like the north's industrialization and consumption.  

On top of that confusion, the world has been receiving an intensifying amount of false information from the funded environmentalist sector that claims a massive consumer economy can be maintained simply by switching to renewable energy.

What about population growth?  Surely, that must be stopped and reversed if we are to achieve sustainability on a global scale.  But not according to delegates and most NGOs at a similar U.N. conference in Cairo on Population and Development in 1994: the only politically correct mantra is that there must be more economic development and education so that people will have fewer children.  However, author Virginia Abernethy had already proven the fallacy of the conventional view of the "demographic transition," in her 1993 book Population Politics.  Rather, it is the sense of economic austerity and uncertainty that guides couples to have fewer children, Dr. Abernethy demonstrated.

Development must become redevelopment or undevelopment, so that urban sprawl is reversed.  Fortunately, on hand at the U.N. conference in Johannesburg is Richard Register of Ecocity Builders, who has devised and brought about sane urban development in Berkeley, California.  In place of building anew and gobbling up more farmland and wildlife habitat, restoration and repair must prevail which provides much employment.   

However, government number-crunchers and their corporate and academic friends deem poverty to be the absence of consumption.  Such as, no dishwashing machines and other major appliances for each household means poverty relative to Wonder Bread America.  For families to share an oven is culturally foreign to well-heeled bureaucrats and corporate executives.  Also, there is no consideration for the idea of spending more time with one's family as a measure of good economics.  After all, how can a few capitalists profit by tolerating that?  Ecological development that restores traditional, community interaction is hardly making a dent in the U.S., but it is part of the foundation of healthy, long-term economic planning. 

Dominating the Johannesburg conference are forces led by the World Bank.  Its vice president for sustainable development, Ian Johnson, recently said there could be no question of an acceptable future "unless we can make major inroads into crippling poverty.  We believe poverty is at the heart of unsustainable development."  The World Bank has always served major financial and corporate interests in extracting nonrenewable resources for major markets, as part of "free trade."  Third Worlders are urged to generate more cash and debt instead of bartering and subsistence food growing and gathering.  The World Bank does not address the north's greed or contribution to unsustainable development.  The last thing the Bank is going to advocate is fewer north Americans and their consuming habits, although our population growth threatens the planet as much as any threat facing humanity and countless species.

Compromised green vision 
Serving to obscure basic issues of development, energy and sustainability is the consensus of funded environmentalist and think-tank policy analysts trumpeting renewable energy as the answer to the planet's ecological crisis.  Renewable energy does tend to be decentralized, and pollutes much less than fossil fuels and nuclear power.  However, this is not 1960 or 1970; a technofix today is too little and too late. 

If, several decades ago, industrial nations had substituted the internal- combustion motor-vehicle fleet for vehicles powered by renewable energy, this could have brought us all to a different global juncture by now—provided all countries had stopped population growth.  But, with today's sad health of the world's life-support system, major reductions in energy use are imperative—to the tune of perhaps 80% reduction in fossil fuel use immediately, says the world scientific community working in climate studies.  Conservation therefore must be so massive as to render unrecognizable today's unsustainable, highly vulnerable consumer society.  This is because global warming is well underway, with decades of future harm already unleashed that will take effect even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped right now.

Yet, the dominating message from the funded environmentalist sector is not that we slash energy use.  Only Dick Cheney has been more dismissive of serious conservation.  The progressive wing of the status quo pushes adoption of maximum renewable energy as fast as possible, while ignoring (1) the entropy of uncounted billions of gizmos manufactured, and (2) that non-petroleum energy cannot feed billions of people.  Any transition from today's agricultural and distributive infrastructure to a sustainable system requires renewable energy, but how much is necessary per capita, and for what population size?  

Renewable energy sounds good, but how feasible is it in the aggregate?  (Some forms are a net gain in pollution, as in biodiesel.)  The information is scanty and looks doubtful.  For example, the proponents of renewable energy usually disclose nothing on their technologies' "imbedded energy"—how much energy (fossil, usually) went into making the solar panels, copper wire, windmill poles, etc.  The lack of flexibility of those energy technologies means that we cannot derive multiple fuels and materials out of them, as we get from petroleum (e.g., tires, asphalt, plastics).  Again, what could be the population size of the "green consumer economy?"  

Perhaps half the world's six billion people are fed via petroleum-oriented agriculture.  This is highly unsustainable partly because, aside from the ecological damage, the world is now reaching its peak of oil extraction.  This means that the imminent downturn in supplies will only intensify, triggering shortage, as the old growth-economy will never come back.  

Other forms of energy cannot substitute for petroleum, partly because the net energy of non-petroleum energy sources is so low, compared to the cheap oil that once came out of new oil wells in the U.S. and is still pumped in much of the Middle East.  Despite the petroleum reality facing our overpopulation, many environmentalists and others anticipate massive population growth as inevitable.

Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC group with a presence in Johannesburg this week, points out that "Reducing world dependence on fossil fuels before a major crisis forces an unplanned transition should be considered a security priority."  However, Worldwatch's basic solution, cleaner energy, has its limitations.  Organizations such as Worldwatch over hype renewable energy in an overpopulated world that is not prepared for the end of plentiful petroleum.

The funded environmental movement and the status quo of the current, failing socioeconomic system assumes only the economy's continuity; therefore, they engage in denial of both the petroleum-reality of overpopulation and today's completely unsustainable infrastructure.  They should publicly ask, "how big an economy can be supported by what mix of energy technologies, for how long?"

Several august nonprofit/non-industry organizations are capable of quantifying the possible role of renewables.  Worldwatch, for one, is responsible enough not to blindly tout more "clean cars" as the main approach to air pollution.  Although Worldwatch is unsurpassed in providing crucial, timely detail on the destruction of the planet and positive news such as the number of additional windmills constructed, the group is careful never to publish or analyze the twin realities of (1) overpopulation as having been achieved in the U.S. and elsewhere, and (2) petroleum dependence being so out of control that we are all well over the brink, assuring an historic population crash.

Finally, unless today's life-and-death global issues are heeded as part of a rejection of mainstream, modern materialist culture that relies on exploitation and oppression, a sustainable future is not in the offing. Fortunately, some of the grassroots NGOs understand concepts such as carrying capacity (the number of a given species that a given environment can sustain indefinitely).  Such knowledge guides their work and their members' lifestyles. This is a big part of the network of culture changers who take pride in living well on less money, in harmony with nature (almost), while enjoying the conviviality of a closer community within the faltering global ecos which they bravely defend.


See Culture Change's dispatches from international editor Pincas Jawetz online at

For Palestine-Israel negative "development" (effects of war), see's_de-development.htm

Visit Ecocity Builders' website at

For sustainable living strategies, visit the Culture Change website's page on climate protection, at:

©2002 Sustainable Energy Institute   

To e-mail Culture Change:



Articles of interest:
Anti-globalization protest grows, with tangible results.  WTO protests page

Tax fossil-fuel energy easily
by Peter Salonius

UK leader calls War on Terror "bogus"

Argentina bleeds toward healing by Raul Riutor

The oil industry has plans for you: blow-back by Jan Lundberg

It's not a war for oil? by Adam Khan

How to create a pedestrian mall by Michelle Wallar

The Cuban bike revolution

How GM destroyed the U.S. rail system excerpts from the film "Taken for a Ride".

"Iraqi oil not enough for US: Last days of America?"

Depaving the world by Richard Register

Roadkill: Driving animals to their graves by Mark Matthew Braunstein

The Hydrogen fuel cell technofix: Spencer Abraham's hydrogen dream.

Ancient Forest Protection in Northern California . Forest defenders climb trees to save them.

Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

A case study in unsustainable development is the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel.

Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)



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  Telephone 1-215-243-3144 (and fax)

Culture Change (Trademarked) is published by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) California non-stock corporation. Contributions are tax-deductible.